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Worst of Fires Now Mostly Under Control

Many crews leave after a welcome storm. Simi blaze is contained, end is near in San Diego and Big Bear residents may get to go home today.

November 02, 2003|Tony Perry, Catherine Saillant and Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writers

One week after wildfires exploded across Southern California, the largest blaze in Ventura County was contained late Saturday, the two fires in San Diego County were expected to be under control by Monday, and Big Bear area residents might be able to return home today.

"We deserved a break from Mother Nature, and we finally got one," said Bill Peters of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, almost euphoric over the inch of rain that fell on the Simi fire Friday night.

Rain and even a dusting of snow all but stopped the relentless march of flames from six fires that have left 20 dead, consumed 690,967 acres and destroyed 3,346 homes since Oct. 24.

Fire officials also were optimistic because there were few flames in the San Bernardino Mountains, even though plumes of smoke continued to rise and tree trunks smoldered. The outlook was so promising that about 200 fire engines and 700 firefighters were sent home and the evacuation order for residents of the Big Bear area was expected to be lifted at 8 a.m. today.

Firefighters said the weather had been the turning point, as it often is in such big blazes. And the National Weather Service's forecast for this week calls for cooler temperatures.

Ventura County Fire Chief Bob Roper said the change in the weather had been critical in finally containing the 116,984-acre Simi/Val Verde fire Saturday evening.

"The whole north end of the fire was in rugged terrain, and we didn't have any resources to send, or it would have been weeks before we did. It now has a snow blanket on it," he said. "The sad thing is that ... after a firefighter dies and hundreds of homes burn, the weather can change so dramatically. Why didn't it do this two days before?"

Even as the flames died down in San Diego County, the controversy over the initial responses to the Cedar and Paradise fires was growing. More than 338,000 acres were burned and 16 died in those blazes.

Voicing a sentiment that is becoming common among politicians reviewing how agencies responded, an unsmiling Rep. Randall "Duke" Cunningham (R-San Diego) said firmly in an interview, "Changes will be made."

One already had. On Saturday, two CH-53 Super Stallion helicopters from the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar dropped water on the Paradise fire in the Valley Center area. It was the first time military equipment had been permitted to fight the fire because of state Forestry Department training rules.

A spokesman at Miramar called the move "the beginning of a new era."

An issue not yet resolved is what to do about tens of thousands of dead pine trees -- infested with and weakened by bark beetles -- still standing in the San Bernardino Mountains.

Jack Blackwell, the regional forester with the Forest Service, predicted that more federal money would become available to remove some of the trees and that more firebreaks would be cut in the San Bernardino National Forest.

"My great hope is that these fires in Southern California are a turning point in how we view public policy on these federal lands," Blackwell said.

Ventura County

Officials at a fire command post in Moorpark were euphoric over the sudden change in fortune involving the Simi fire.

Friday's storm dropped nearly an inch of rain over the remnants of the 108,204-acre fire, which had destroyed 37 homes and damaged 11 others. The season's first storm also blanketed Ventura County's northern mountains with 4 inches of snow and slowed the 63,991-acre Piru blaze, which was 80% contained.

Weary crews were leaving the Moorpark post in droves after tearing down a tent city.

About 100 firefighters will continue to patrol and mop up the fires where needed, Peters said. Hundreds left the lines late Friday to battle other blazes or to go home.

Tension and long hours of work gave way to jokes and back-slapping at a Piru fire camp Saturday. Sean Norman, who had worked long hours on the fire lines for eight straight days, was eager to return to his home in Butte County in Northern California.

He had already worked out his priorities: He would see his girlfriend, have a steak and then drop into a long, deep slumber.

San Diego County

At a town hall meeting in Valley Center, where the Paradise fire began, government and fire officials faced more than 600 residents in a gathering where emotions were raw and confrontations frequent.

Residents complained about a lack of resources at the local fire station, a lack of information on where those who lost homes could turn for help and a lack of support to start their own volunteer fire brigade.

They said they would be better prepared for the next wildfire if there were more fire stations serving the rural area.

Officials admitted that they could not answer all the questions.

"I can't really solve that one right now," Supervisor Bill Horn told a woman who asked why no local or state agency had yet agreed to provide support for her neighborhood's volunteer response team.

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